Pūrākau edited by Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka

Subtitle: Māori Myths Retold by Māori Writers

Wrong reader, wrong book…

🙂 🙂 😐

This is a collection of short stories and a few poems based on Māori mythology, as the subtitle suggests. Since I know nothing about Māori mythology, I thought this might be an interesting way to fill the gap, but sadly I had to conclude that I was wrong. In retrospect this book would work much better for someone who is already familiar with the mythology and, more importantly, knows a fair amount of the Māori language. The editors have chosen not to include footnotes or even a glossary to explain the many Māori words and expressions used throughout the stories. I get that – why should they? It is not their function to mollycoddle my ignorance. I would not expect someone writing in German to footnote every word for my benefit. Rather, I would choose not to read the book unless and until it was translated into English. With this one, I started out willing to google the translations of the Māori words, but in the end there were so many of them, and some of the stories depended so totally on understanding words or myths unfamiliar to me, that I found I was spending more time reading Google than the book. Eventually I found myself abandoning stories as it began to feel as if I were doing a translation exercise in school rather than reading for pleasure. So, not the book’s fault – it is clearly aimed at a demographic of which I am not part. Wrong reader, wrong book.

In light of that, I’m not sure that anything I have to say about the stories I did make it through would be particularly insightful. I enjoyed some of them, both the retellings of original myths or the stories that took those myths and used them in a modern context. However, I felt the quality varied wildly from excellent to pretty poor. I learned a little about the mythology, though not as much as I had hoped. And I learned something about modern Māori culture, or at least about the authors’ chosen perspectives on Māori culture: the deprivation, the prevalence of substance abuse and incest, and their bitterness against the colonisers and current white population whom they see as the cause of their social problems. The stories set in modern times eliminated my cosy existing belief that somehow New Zealand was doing better on issues of racial harmony than the rest of us. But most of the stories left me feeling that I hadn’t understood them: literally, because I didn’t understand the many Māori words, or figuratively, because I didn’t understand the mythology and culture underpinning them. A fairly generous 2½ stars for me then.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

34 thoughts on “Pūrākau edited by Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka

  1. I’m sorry to hear that the language and background got in the way of your really enjoying this, FictionFan. The topic fascinates me, and I’d like to know more about the myths, stories, and so on, myself. But if there is that communication gap, I can see where it would be difficult to really enjoy a book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m notoriously lazy about foreign language words and phrases dropped into English, so you may well get on better with this than I did. Eventually I just ran out of patience, I’m afraid. Although I understand the point of refusing to put a glossary or footnotes in, I can’t help feeling it severely limits the likelihood of a wide readership – cutting off nose to spite face, in effect. I always advise non-Scots to make sure they get an annotated version of Sir Walter Scott’s novels.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I came to the conclusion that I’d have been better to read a straightforward version of the mythology first – perhaps even a children’s version, just to get the basics. But all the Maori words and phrases would still have driven me up the wall without footnotes, I’m afraid.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. No glossary?? If a publisher publishes a book, shouldn’t it be accessible to more people than those of the culture it represents so that they can learn about that culture? What a missed opportunity!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I must admit that’s my view too. I understand the reasoning that people from a minority culture shouldn’t have to explain things, but I feel it just prevents the book being accessible to a wider readership. Kind of preaching to the choir, if you know what I mean.

      Like

    • I was certainly surprised, especially when it became clear that just skipping unfamiliar words and phrases wasn’t really an option. I guess they’re really aiming for a Maori readership, or perhaps these words are familiar to non-Maori New Zealanders.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. No glossary is frustrating. I think I can see their point – as you say, it doesn’t sound like they were trying to reach a non-Māori demographic – but it would make it very difficult to read! And the risk with Google, of course, is that plenty of expressions can have a few different interpretations in English and you end up with a half-guessed interpretation of the story anyway. A very fair review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I understand how annoying it must be for minority cultures to have to explain things to outsiders all the time, but really, if they don’t, then it’s unlikely outsiders will make the effort. I’d always recommend non-Scots (and even most Scots!) to make sure they got an annotated version of a Sir Walter Scott book, for example. Indeed, Google sent me down a lot of rabbit holes, not all of them heading in the right direction!

      Like

  4. I can understand not wanting to include definitions within the text, but not including a glossary is more than a bit of an oversight. Unless it was intended for the small audience who wouldn’t need it. And why would a publisher want it to appeal to such a small audience? You’d think they’d want to make them more accessible to outsiders so they wouldn’t just be “preaching to the choir.” Strange. I backpacked through New Zealand for a couple of months way back in 1988, and found it quite a welcoming place. But the impression you had from the stories you read is correct (at least from what I saw during my travels), the Maori have their own struggles in what has become a white dominated country (like most indigenous people who were overrun by colonizers).

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s exactly it, Jilanne – it feels as if the stories are meant to explain the culture and the mythology, but to whom? If it’s only to other Maoris then fair enough – but if they want to give outsiders an opportunity to understand their culture better, then a glossary would have gone a long way to making the book more accessible. I was surprised by the feeling of bitterness I got from some of the stories – I really thought New Zealand had made great strides in harmonising relations between the two communities. Oh well! One day we’ll all be coffee-coloured and living in a parking lot or whatever it was the old song said… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What a shame. I know you were looking forward to this one. I’m one of those who thinks there should have been a glossary. I wouldn’t think there would be a large percentage of folks familiar with Maori words and expressions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wondered how non-Maori New Zealanders would have got on with it – if maybe they would be more familiar with the words and myths. Christine (from NZ) was reading it too so I’m interested to hear how she got on. But if they’re selling the book in Scotland I’d be surprised if many of us know much Maori!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I can understand that minority cultures must get very fed up having to explain everything to the majorities, but by choosing not to have footnotes or a glossary I do think they’re making it unnecessarily difficult for outsiders to read, and I agree – the more we read about and understand other cultures the better.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I understand how this book didn’t work for you FF, I found that I drew on my (incomplete) knowledge of traditional Māori stories, te reo Māori (Māori language) and tikanga Māori (Māori ways of being) as well as our own colonial history in understanding and reflecting on these stories. I recognise that as an interested Pākehā (non-Māori) New Zealander, there will be levels of understanding that I had, as well as some I missed which may be available to Māori readers. It seems to me that the intended readership of this book is New Zealanders who do have some level of awareness of the Māori world. There are a number of Māori words in common usage in NZ and a greater number of words and concepts which will be known to those who have been open to engaging with the Māori world, even if they are not fluent in Māori (I’m in this category).
    I agree that there is diversity amongst these stories and I found real resonance in some stories which did relate to my NZ knowledge, less engagement with others, and was not the right reader for at least one (the game world one). I was interested too in seeing the treatment that different authors had in developing their own story from a traditional one – from fairly straight retellings, to taking the underlying themes and applying them in a modern day context.
    With acknowledgment that this is not my history, I would say that the generational harms inflicted by early colonial power-taking, land robbing and bad faith are still a reality for many Māori in today’s world. However the situation is a complex one, with many perspectives prevailing. The aspect I find most hopeful is that the country’s founding document, The Treaty of Waitangi, has shaped a culture of communication and negotiation (even though it took many decades for the good faith of that communication to be established on the Pākehā side). While the harms and attitudes you mention are real and deeply felt and experienced by some, they are no more the total story of Māori and Pākehā in New Zealand than is the bookish depiction of crime culture in Glasgow the ‘real’ story of that city.
    I value being part of this NZ journey we are on negotiating and trying to make better colonial wrongs and acknowledging and valuing the culture which is unique to New Zealand.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And I forgot to say FF that I’m impressed you both chose and persevered with reading this book which is a challenging read outside of NZ contexts (and would be challenging for some NZ readers too).

      Liked by 1 person

    • I hoped you’d get on better with it than I did – glad to hear you did! I couldn’t completely decide why it went downhill for me from a promising start – whether the stories really became more full of stuff I didn’t understand, or whether I just lost patience. A combination, perhaps. But I did find in the first couple of chapters there was some kind of explanatory section giving an idea of the mythology relating to that chapter, and then that seemed to stop, leaving me either floundering or googling. The swearing and sex got a bit too much for me too after a while – one of the stories I actually abandoned purely because of the amount of foul language in it.

      I’ve just said in today’s review of another anthology that editors should leave the best for last, and I fear in this one I felt they left the worst for last – the story/essay from Witi Ihimaera really annoyed me, leaving a bad taste all round. I get that he feels his people are hard done by, no doubt with cause, but to suggest that Maoris are intrinsically superior, and that somehow Maori literature comes from a place of truth and integrity while all writing from those nasty colonialist countries is fake and shallow and basically not worth reading… hmm. It seemed a particularly odd line to take since of course he is writing in the western tradition rather than creating in the Maori tradition. I also got fed up with him boasting about his own superb talent! 😉

      In truth, I felt the editors had an agenda beyond retelling the mythology. It seemed to me highly polemical, and to achieve their aim I hoped they were exaggerating, or cherry-picking. As I said in my review they left me with a very depressed view of the state of play between races in New Zealand, which surprised me. Of course, there will continue to be problems – where aren’t there? – but it has seemed to me in recent years that the majority of people in NZ, colonial stock or Maori, have been trying to find ways to live together harmoniously. So I’m glad that you are confirming what I hoped – that this is one perspective, not THE perspective, of the Maori community as a whole.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I found Witi Ihimaera’s final commentary heavy handed especially compared with some of the other writers’ more allusive writing. There is a wide range of Māori writers here and I suspect (with no knowledge!) that they were approached and given a wide brief with regard to writing a piece inspired by a traditional story. Knowing some of the other work of some of these writers, I found their writing here consistent with what I’d read earlier. So I wonder if any agendas were found by the writers themselves – the editors’ role after that is another story!
        I think when there are old hurts and harms (reflected today in higher statistics, to Māori disadvantage, in areas of education, health, material and social wellbeing, imprisonment etc.) then they will often be referenced in stories, even when the lives of many of those writing are not represented in those statistics, these are still the realities for some others. In my lifetime there has been a much more honest looking at the historical impacts on Māori and their consequences on lives today, and (ongoing and not completely successful) attempts for government to work with Māori to make changes. There is a tradition of open speech on the marae (the formal Māori meeting place) and some of the “calling out” themes probably come from this place and also because Māori people still carry the pain of injustice – this is not ‘just’ hanging on to the old, but an active sense that there is still healing to be done and justice to be achieved. I think this engagement makes us stronger as a society (and more divided at times, of course).

        Liked by 1 person

        • I think I fall somewhere into the middle – I do believe that indigenous people around the world, and immigrants in western countries, are still suffering disadvantage, but I also think that things have changed dramatically for the better in my lifetime (not as a result, you understand… 😉 ). There’s still a way to go, but I don’t see us ever getting to a better future while people are still blaming the distant past for everything. I’m a kind of “we are where we are” type – now let’s work out the best way forward. I feel there’s a point where people have to take responsibility for their own behaviour rather than blaming history and everyone else. Haha, Ihimaera really annoyed me. 😉

          Liked by 1 person

  7. That’s too bad. I get that this book would likely work for a different reader but something that is geared toward those of us who would want to learn but have very little knowledge base would be a great thing to have too.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Well too bad it wasn’t clearer that an understanding of Maori was needed here, but as you say, that can’t be helped. I know the rest of the world tends to look at New Zealand as being quite progressive, which I’m sure they are in some respects, but having friends who lived there, I know the racism is still quite prevalent there between white and Indigenous cultures. I’m hoping they have started on their own reconciliation journey as Canada has.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s interesting, Anne. It’s odd how countries develop reputations that don’t always reflect reality, like the US being a beacon of democracy and opportunity. I guess a lot of it depends on how eloquent their politicians are, but eloquence doesn’t always convert into results. Lots of Scots genuinely believe we’re leading the world on climate change because our First Minister keeps saying we are, but I’m betting the world would be surprised to hear it – Greta Thunberg certainly doesn’t agree!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I think it is a miss opportunity. This is a book I would have liked to read, but I wouldn’t even try for the reasons you mentioned. A wider readership would surely benefit everybody including the Maori.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s my feeling too, Anca, but I guess the editors made a deliberate choice to only speak to their own community and interested New Zealanders with some pre-existing knowledge. Fair enough, but it does make me wonder why they’re selling the book in Scotland…!

      Like

  10. That is a shame: i can understand the reasons both for and against a glossary. I had a similar ish problem recently with a book that was meant to be celebrating Black women, but was so rooted in US popular culture (shows we didn’t get over here, influencers and musicians I wasn’t aware of, or if I was, I’d just heard of them in the case of the musicians, and just throwing in mentions of a character on a show, etc.). In the end I realised I’d be better off reading more direct experience/memoir as I was struggling to engage.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I quite often find myself a bit discombobulated by books from other cultures even when they’re written in English – the differences in our cultures might be small but they’re important. Sometimes it’s actually easier to read about an entirely unfamiliar culture where, if you see what I mean, we don’t already think we know about it. But untranslated words are always an issue for me if there’s no glossary, and in this one there were just too many for my patience to cope with. Oh well!

      Like

Please leave a comment - I'd love to know who's visiting and what you think...of the post, of the book, of the blog, of life, of chocolate...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.